Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband makes his big offer on the minimum wage

The minimum wage will rise faster than median earnings over the next parliament. 

There are two components of the living standards crisis that Ed Miliband has made it his defining mission to tackle. The first is excessive prices, the second is inadequate wages. Miliband has recently had much to say about the former, pledging to freeze energy bills, extend free childcare and cap rent increases. But he has had less to say about the latter. When George Osborne announced in January that he hoped to increase the national minimum wage to £7 by 2015-16, many in Labour complained that the party hadn't pre-empted his offer. To date, Miliband has limited himself to an often vague-sounding pledge to "strengthen" the legal minimum. Labour MPs and activists, who want to see it substantially hiked, not merely better enforced, are critical of such moderation. 

But tomorrow he will go a long way to assuaging their concerns. At the launch of former KPMG deputy chairman Alan Buckle's report on low pay for the party, he will endorse its central recommendation to increase the minimum wage faster than median earnings over the course of the next parliament, so that the gap between the two is significantly narrowed (the former currently represents 53 per cent of the latter). 

A Labour source told me: "We see this as taking the minimum wage from tackling the real bottom-end of the labour market, the worst cases of exploitation, which is what it was originally designed to do, to a whole new ballgame. We're now saying we're going to tackle low pay by having a minimum wage which is explicitly linked to median wages, so when the economy does well and median wages rise, so will the minimum wage. And in order to get that process started, we're going to dramatically increase the proportion that the minimum wage represents." From an instrument to tackle poverty pay, the minimum wage will be transformed into one to tackle long-term inequality. 

In recent years, the minimum wage has fallen back to its 2004 level, leaving 5.2 million people (one in five of all workers) stranded on low pay, up from 4.8 million in 2012 and 3.4 million in 2009. The cost to the state, in the form of lost tax revenue and higher benefit payments, is estimated at £3.23bn a year.

Were the policy to be implemented, it would represent the most significant change to the minimum wage since its introduction in 1999. At present, the independent Low Pay Commission (LPC) recommends an annual rate every 12 months. But under Labour's plan, its mandate would be reformed to give it a legal duty to consider pay over a longer time frame, comparable to the Bank of England's 2 per cent inflation target. Alongside this, it would be empowered to create taskforces with employers and employees to boost productivity and wages in low-paid sectors, and ensure that those sectors which can afford to pay more do so. Crucially, however, the LPC would retain the capacity to "take account of shocks to the economy". 

Many in Labour will continue to regard the new policy as inadequate. They, in common with most of the public, would like to see the minimum wage (currently £6.31 an hour) raised to the level of the living wage (£7.65 nationwide and £8.80 in London). But while Labour is unlikely to pledge to do so (owing to the 160,000 jobs that NIESR estimates the move would cost), Miliband will say in his speech tomorrow that he will set out his "precise ambition" closer to the general election. 

Alongside this, Labour sources emphasise that the party will promote the living wage by making it a condition of major government contracts and by offering temporary tax incentives to firms to raise pay (under the Make Work Pay contracts previously announced). 

Miliband will say tomorrow: 

Britain is still one of the lowest paid countries among the world’s advanced economies. So we have to go further, we have to write the next chapter in the history of Labour’s battle to make work pay. It is time to raise our sights again because Britain can do better than this.

The next Labour government will restore the link between hard work and building a decent life for your family. And today, Alan Buckle’s Report begins to tell us how: it means promoting a Living Wage which is what our fantastic Labour councils are already doing. But most of all it means setting new ambitions for our country.

That’s why today, I am proud to announce that the next Labour government will take new radical action against low pay: a new five-year ambition to restore the link between doing a hard day’s work and building a decent life for your family. A Labour government will establish a clear link between the level of the minimum wage and the scale of wages paid to other workers in our economy. We will say workers on the minimum wage must never be left behind because those who work hard to create our nation’s wealth should share in it. 

This mission to tackle low pay will be in England, Wales, Northern Ireland - and Scotland too - because social justice is best achieved by working together rather than competing against each other in a race to the bottom on wages, tax rates and aspirations for our country. And by helping to make work pay for millions we will chart a new course for Labour too, changing our economy to make work pay and tackle the cost of failure in our social security system too.

Just as when the last Labour government created the National Minimum Wage, the next Labour government will do this in partnership with business once again, allowing employers the certainty they need to plan ahead.

I will set out the precise ambition Labour will propose closer to the election. But today I want to welcome this central recommendation of Alan Buckle’s report and state plainly that, under the next Labour government, hardworking Britain will be better off.

How the Tories will respond is uncertain. In recent months, they have taken an "adopt or kill" approach to Labour's policies: trashing proposals such as a cap on rent increases and living wage deals, while embracing others such as a limit on payday loan charges. But having made such play of their commitment to increase the minimum wage in real-terms and of their regret at their decision to oppose its introduction, they will surely seek to echo Miliband's ambitions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia